Classical Hollywood cinema

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Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, adjusted with inflation is the highest-grossing film of all time, and a classic of Hollywood cinema

Classical Hollywood cinema, or the classical Hollywood narrative,[1] are terms used in film history which designate both a visual and narrative style for making motion pictures and a mode of production used in the American film industry between 1917 and 1960. [2]


Early Silent Film (late 19th century-early 1910s)[edit]

Early silent films were greatly influenced by late 19th century stage acting and were impeded by technical limitations. Combined with the popularity of vaudeville and melodrama on the stage, the obvious lack of sound contributed to early silent films being greatly exaggerated in style. Most films in this period were shorts, making the narrative style associated with Classical Hollywood difficult if not impossible attain. Film was not a particularly popular medium in this period, and was dwarfed by Broadway, which offered superior content with the added benefits of sound, color, depth, and the appeal of a booming star system—in fact, to stage actors, screen acting was considered a lowly medium. Most directors of film in the period began on stage and most actors came from vaudeville, leading to stagy cinematography and vaudevillian performance techniques.

Growth and Maturation of the Medium (early 1910s-1917)[edit]

Theatrical release poster for The Birth of a Nation

By the early 1910s silent film began to noticeably adopt technical and artistic elements which would be found in Classic Hollywood cinema. Actresses who displayed a more modern, less vaudevillian style of acting early on include included Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet. Lillian Gish would make her debut in 1912 in An Unseen Enemy with her sister Dorothy. D. W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation was groundbreaking for the medium. It introduced such technical camera techniques as the use of panoramic long shots, the iris effects, still-shots, night photography, panning camera shots, and crowd shots. It also contained many new artistic techniques, such as color tinting for dramatic purposes, and its own musical score written for an orchestra. Screen performance techniques pioneered by Lillian Gish were popularized, elevating not only her stature as an actress, but also the reputation of movies themselves. The immense critical and commercial success of The Birth of A Nation (the highest grossing film of all time until Gone with the Wind in 1939) elevated film as a medium, catapulting it towards the esteem awarded to the stage. According to silent star Mary Pickford, it was "the first picture that really made people take the motion picture industry seriously." The film was initiated so many advances in the medium that it was rendered obsolete in within a few years. [3] It was these advances that began the era of Classical Hollywood cinema.

Classical Hollywood Cinema[edit]

Golden Age of Silent Film (1917-late 1920s)[edit]

Lillian Gish, the "First Lady of the American Cinema", was a leading star in the silent era

Major Classic Filmography[edit]

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917 film), The Poor Little Rich Girl, Wild and Wooly, Broken Blossoms, The Last of the Mohicans, Within Our Gates, Pollyanna, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Safety Last!, Greed, Sherlock, Jr., The Thief of Bagdad, Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, The Gold Rush, The Black Pirate, The General, Flesh and the Devil, The Wind, and It

Golden Age of Hollywood cinema[edit]

During the golden age of Hollywood, which lasted from the end of the silent era in American cinema in the late 1920s to the early 1960s, films were prolifically issued by the Hollywood studios.[2] Some begin the start of the Golden Age with The Jazz Singer was released in 1927 and increased box-office profits for films as sound was introduced to feature films. Others begin the era at 1929, when the silent age had definitively ended. Most Hollywood pictures adhered closely to a genre in this period—Western, slapstick comedy, musical, animated cartoon, biopic (biographical picture)—and the same creative teams often worked on films made by the same studio. For instance, Cedric Gibbons and Herbert Stothart always worked on MGM films, Alfred Newman worked at Twentieth Century Fox for twenty years, Cecil B. DeMille's films were almost all made at Paramount, director Henry King's films were mostly made for Twentieth-Century Fox.

After The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, Warner Brothers gained huge success and was able to acquire its own string of movie theatres, beginning with Stanley Theatres and First National Productions in 1928; MGM had also owned a string of theatres since forming in 1924, known as Loews Theatres, and the Fox film Corporation owned the Fox Theatre strings as well. RKO, another company that owned theatres, had formed in 1928 from a merger between Keith-Orpheum Theaters and the Radio Corporation of America.

RKO, formed in response to the monopoly Western Electric's ERPI had over sound in films, began to use sound in films through its own method, known as Photophone. Paramount, which had already acquired Balaban and Katz in 1926, would answer to the success of Warner Bros. and RKO, and buy a number of theaters in the late 1920s as well, before making their final purchase in 1929, through acquiring all the individual theaters belonging to the Cooperative Box Office, located in Detroit, and dominate the Detroit theaters.

However, filmmaking was still a business and motion picture companies made money by operating under the studio system. The major studios kept thousands of people on salary—actors, producers, directors, writers, stunt men, craftspersons and technicians. And they owned hundreds of theaters in cities and towns across America, theaters that showed their films and that were always in need of fresh material. In 1930, MPDDA President Will Hays also founded the Hays (Production) Code, which followed censorship guidelines and went into effect after government threats of censorship expanded by 1930. However the code was not enforced until 1934.

Throughout the early 1930s, risqué films and salacious advertising became widespread in the period known as Pre-Code Hollywood. MGM dominated the industry and had most of the top stars in Hollywood. Another great achievement of American cinema during this era came through Walt Disney's animation. In 1937, Disney created the most successful film of its time, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs In the mid-to-late 1930s box office profits contracted considerably. Many blamed the star system, as stars were paid huge salaries due to their contracts despite failure at the box office. Leading stars of the era such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were labeled "Box office Poison". Film historians have remarked upon the many great works of cinema that emerged from this period of highly regimented film-making. One reason this was possible is that, with so many films being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles and regarded by some as the greatest film of all time, fits that description. In other cases, strong-willed directors like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again,Young Mr. Lincoln, Wuthering Heights, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, Beau Geste, Babes in Arms, Gunga Din, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and The Roaring Twenties.

Major classic filmography[edit]

Among other films from the golden age period now considered classics, are: Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, It's a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, King Kong, Citizen Kane, Swing Time, Some Like It Hot, A Night at the Opera, Sergeant York, All About Eve, The Maltese Falcon, The Searchers, Laura, North by Northwest, Morocco, Rebel Without a Cause, Rear Window, Double Indemnity, City Lights, Psycho, High Noon, Bringing Up Baby, Notorious, Singin' in the Rain, Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, From Here To Eternity, and On the Waterfront.


The style of classical Hollywood cinema, as elaborated by David Bordwell,[4] was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance and its resurgence of mankind as the focal point.

Thus, classical narration progresses always through psychological motivation, i.e. by the will of a human character and its struggle with obstacles towards a defined goal. The aspects of space and time are subordinated to the narrative element which is usually composed of two lines of action: A romance intertwined with a more generic one such as business or, in the case of Alfred Hitchcock films, solving a crime.

Time in classical Hollywood is continuous, since non-linearity calls attention to the illusory workings of the medium. The only permissible manipulation of time in this format is the flashback. It is mostly used to introduce a memory sequence of a character, e.g. Casablanca.

Likewise, the treatment of space in classic Hollywood strives to overcome or conceal the two-dimensionality of film ("invisible style") and is strongly centered upon the human body. The majority of shots in a classical film focus on gestures or facial expressions (medium-long and medium shots). André Bazin once compared classical film to a photographed play in that the events seem to exist objectively and that cameras only give us the best view of the whole play.[5]

This treatment of space consists of four main aspects: centering, balancing, frontality and depth. Persons or objects of significance are mostly in the center part of the picture frame and never out of focus. Balancing refers to the visual composition, i.e. characters are evenly distributed throughout the frame. The action is subtly addressed towards the spectator (frontality) and set, lighting (mostly three-point lighting) and costumes are designed to separate foreground from the background (depth).


The classic Hollywood narrative is structured with an unmistakable beginning, middle and end, and generally there is a distinct resolution at the end. Utilizing actors, events, causal effects, main points and secondary points are basic characteristics of this type of narrative. The characters in Classical Hollywood Cinema have clearly definable traits, are active, and very goal oriented. They are causal agents motivated by psychological rather than social concerns.[2]


The mode of production came to be known as the Hollywood studio system and the star system, which standardized the way movies were produced. All film workers (actors, directors, etc.) were employees of a particular film studio. This resulted in a certain uniformity to film style: directors were encouraged to think of themselves as employees rather than artists, and hence auteurs did not flourish (although some directors, such as William Wyler, Henry Hathaway, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks, worked within this system and still fulfilled their artistic selves).

The Hollywood studio system was controlled by the “Big Eight” studios; however, the Big Five fully integrated studios were the most powerful. These five studios were MGM, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and RKO. They all operated their own theater chains and produced and distributed films as well. The “Little Three” studios (Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists) were also full-fledged film factories but they lacked the financial resources of the Big Five and therefore produced fewer A-class features which were the foundations of the studio system.[6]


While the boundaries are vague, the classical era is generally held to begin in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer. Hollywood classicism gradually declined with the collapse of the studio system, the advent of television, the growing popularity of auteurism among directors, and the increasing influence of foreign films and independent filmmaking.

The 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which outlawed the practice of block booking and the above-mentioned ownership and operation of theater chains by the major film studios (as it was believed to constitute anti-competitive and monopolistic trade practices), was seen as a major blow to the studio system. This was because, firstly, it cleared the way for a growing number of independent producers (some of them the actors themselves) and studios to produce their films free of major studio interference, and secondly, because it destroyed the original business model utilized by the studios who struggled to adapt.[7]

"At the time of the Court decision, everyone said the quality, consistency and availability of movies would go up and prices would fall. Quite the opposite happened. By 1955, the number of produced films had fallen by 25 percent. More than 4,200 theaters (or 23 percent of the total) had shut their doors. More than half of those remaining were unable to earn a profit. They could not afford to rent and exhibit the best and most costly films, the ones most likely to compete with television."[7]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin (1985). The Classical Hollywood Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-06055-6. 


  1. ^ The Classic Hollywood Narrative Style at University of San Diego History Dept
  2. ^ a b c Goldburg, Michael. "Classical Hollywood Cinema". Retrieved 2012-04-22. 
  3. ^ Brownlow, Kevin (1968). The Parade's Gone By.... University of California Press. p. 78. ISBN 0520030680.
  4. ^ Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin (1985): The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press. 1-59
  5. ^ Bordwell: 24
  6. ^ McDonald, Wasko, Paul, Janet (2008). The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-4051-3387-6. 
  7. ^ a b